Defra ploughs ahead with changes to official statistics

The government is to cut back on a number of official environment, farming and food statistics – despite a consultation revealing concerns about a “downgrading” of data.

Defra is cutting back on environment and farming statistics – Photo credit: Flickr, Winniepix, CC BY 2.0 

The changes – driven by cuts to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ budget that were announced earlier this year – focus on statistics related to the environment, farming and food and the statistics collected by Defra’s agencies.

They include plans to stop publishing annual air quality statistics, cancel the annual farm practices survey and changing the way data is collected for the family food survey.

However, a consultation launched in February this year – which garnered 42 responses – has revealed a number of concerns about the proposed changes to Defra’s statistics.

These include fears that the proposals would “downgrade” the data collected and held by Defra, with respondents saying it could lead to a reduction in value, consistency, accuracy, relevance and confidence in conclusions from analysis.

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In addition, respondents said that scaling back the frequency of major surveys might make it harder for the department to track progress against targets – such as on greenhouse gas mitigation measures.

Others said that changing the timing of publication could have knock-on effects on secondary outputs, or an increasing reliance on other bodies to collect relevant data might have implications on the robustness and independence of future statistics.

Despite this, the department said that it had already implemented some of the changes to its statistics – these include the decision not to collect or publish the Environmental Protection Expenditure Survey data in 2016 and not to conduct the 2016 Autumn Farm Practices Survey.

It has, however, decided to put on hold some of its proposed changes based on the results, such as moves to stop publishing air quality statistics and cancelling the cereal stocks surveys. These plans will be subject to further consultation, Defra said.

The move to cut down on the statistics published by Defra and its agencies comes as the department’s Data Programme is promoting its efforts to make better use of data.

Just last week, the programme’s board last week announced that it was planning to run three proof-of-concept studies – on bovine TB, flood and Earth observation – to improve its use of data.

Meanwhile, the department has pledged to open up more of its datasets to the public, and this summer announced that it had exceeded its target of making 8,000 datasets open by June 2016.

The consultation document makes mention of this push for open data, saying that the statistical programme of work “will continue to evolve, in parallel”, with the open data work.

“Our aim is to continue to work with users and other interested parties to maintain and build on the value of their inputs to this consultation, developing the products and enabling data-driven decision making across the group and more widely,” the document said.

It also indicated that respondents were keen to increase the use of electronic data collection and administrative data, as well as calling for more coordination between Defra and industry partners. These ideas will be investigated further, the department said.

Sounding a final word of caution, Defra noted that the consultation had been carried out before the UK’s referendum on continued membership of the European Union. As such, it said it would need to “keep abreast of changing statistical priorities and evidence needs” and might need to make “further changes to the overall portfolio”.


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